In late June I traveled to South Dakota in search of the Buffalo Nation and have been thinking of little else since. The images of the Black Hills, the Badlands, the rolling grasslands, the rain, lightning, thunder and the buffalo parade through my head like a slide show.
Mostly I think about Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and wonder if 200 buffalo, a couple of dozen families, a few thousand acres of land, a handful of windmills and a seven-generation-old strategic plan for self-sufficiency can make a difference.
Will the return of the buffalo really make the Oglala Lakota spiritually strong and make the sacred hoop whole again? Will the sacred tree that Black Elk once believed died at Wounded Knee sprout green leaves again?
Readers of the four-part series – In Search of the Buffalo Nation – that appeared in The Pueblo Chieftain earlier this week know that the Buffalo Nation is made up of a handful of Oglala Lakota people who share a vision of living off their land and declaring themselves independent of U.S. government handouts.
They represent a movement to return to the land, acquire a seed herd of buffalo, build fences and reservoirs, drill wells and build energy-efficient houses powered by electrical wind generators, and produce biodiesel fuel to power machines, vehicles and back-up generators.
Through sheer determination and with organizational help from Village Earth, a Fort Collins-based nonprofit that seeks to help people become self-sufficient on the land, the nucleus for the Buffalo Nation has been formed.
Will this tiny seed survive in an environment of 35 percent unemployment, persistent alcoholism, widespread diabetes and 70 percent of the adult population with less than a high school education? Does it even have a chance?
Because they are able to see beyond their own generation in both directions, destiny may have more to do with it than chance. Henry Red Cloud, a fifth-generation descendent of the great 19th Century Chief Red Cloud, tells the story of seven generations. It was a simple plan laid out by Chief Red Cloud, one of the first to sign treaties and move on to a reservation in the mid-1800s. For seven generations, the Oglala Lakota were to “learn the goodness” of the white society; take that goodness and combine it with the goodness of the Lakota and apply the best of both to create a self-sufficient future for the next seven generations.
For Henry Red Cloud, that vision translates into a family-operated buffalo ranch with passive solar earth houses powered by the wind and sun. Bryan Deans’ share of the vision is for the reservation to become energy independent by producing ethanol and biodiesel fuels from waste oils.
Pueblo native David Bartecchi, Village Earth’s main organizer on the reservation, is connecting the dots. Through hundreds of interviews, he has identified families wanting to regain control of their land and created an inventory of resources for helping these families to become self-sufficient.
It was fascinating to spend a few days on Pine Ridge and see firsthand these visionaries at work: Men and women who are struggling to create a better life for themselves and for generations to come.
Most humbling and haunting was a brief visit to a hill overlooking Wounded Knee where an estimated 300 Oglala Lakota men, women and children – who died in a hail of bullets and cannon fire in a massacre at the hands of the Seventh Calvary on Dec. 29, 1890 – are buried in a mass grave.
In February 1973, the same hill was the scene of a 71-day armed occupation of Wounded Knee by members and supporters of the American Indian Movement. I was a student at the University of Colorado in Boulder when AIM leaders Russell Means and Dennis Banks came to campus seeking support for the occupation. As members of the United Mexican American Students, we marched in Denver to the federal courthouse in support of AIM and the Wounded Knee occupation.
Visiting Wounded Knee with Henry Red Cloud and hearing his historical account of the massacre and his first-person account of the occupation (he visited the encampment with his father as a adolescent), put the Oglala Lakotas’ current struggle into context.
Wounded Knee was where the Oglala Lakota nation was crushed; the hoop broken and the tree of life uprooted. It also was where the Oglala Lakota stood up and reclaimed their vision for self-determination. Now, three decades later, the vision has produced a seed for a self-sufficient future.
Suddenly, it all made sense. What is happening on Pine Ridge may be the brightest hope for the Oglala Lakota Nation since 1890. More importantly, their success could become a model for others who seek to return to the land and strive for self-sufficiency and the independence that comes with it.
While the series was running in The Chieftain, Pueblo physician, Carl Bartecchi, David Bartecchi’s father, called to say he had received numerous phone calls expressing support for his son’s work. One patient went to the doctor’s office to deliver a $1,000 donation to Village Earth’s Pine Ridge project.
Next month, David Bartecchi, Henry Red Cloud and a delegation of Oglala Lakota will return to Pueblo to receive a second donation of buffalo from Ken and Kathy Danylchuck. While they are in town, they would like to meet with local supporters to talk more about their efforts. When a time and place for such a meeting has been determined, it will be announced in The Chieftain.
Donations to the Adopt-a-Buffalo project can be made through Village Earth by calling (970) 491-5754, or send a check to: Village Earth, P.O. Box 797, Fort Collins, CO 80521. Be sure to write: “Adopt-A-Buffalo Program” in the memo.
Juan Espinosa, a Chieftain night city editor, can be reached by calling 544-3520, ext. 423, or by e-mail at: [email protected] .